When Sheila Johnson opened her five-star Salamander Resort and Spa, critics warned it would be the death knell of Middleburg’s small-town life. More than five years later, town leaders continue their push to attract new businesses, but the goal of preserving the small, rural community remains paramount.
That effort goes back to the 1970s when town leaders eschewed plans that envisioned new shopping centers, residential neighborhoods and a Rt. 50 bypass. In 2003, they also opted to not participate in the county’s newly introduced Joint Land Management Areas, which allow towns to provide utility service to residents living outside the corporate borders.
“That indicates something important to remember about Middleburg,” said former Town Administrator Martha Semmes. “The governing body has remained consistent in its views toward development.”
Currently, roughly 850 residents live in about 360 homes within the town’s 1-square-mile limits, nearly half of which is zoned for agricultural conservancy and will never be developed. In 2010, 673 residents lived in 250 homes within the same area. In 2000, 632 residents lived in 322 homes within the then 0.64-square-mile limits.
That means the town’s population in the past 19 years has increased by only 35 percent, with the number of occupied homes increasing by 12 percent. That’s virtually no growth compared to the Town of Purcellville’s 173 percent population increase and 132 percent increase in homes during that time—or Loudoun County’s almost 230 percent population growth.
The town’s population increase comes as a result of a few individual infill lots and the 19-home Steeple Chase Run development, which was completed in 2014.
That growth, along with businesses moving to town, has increased the town’s combined real estate and utilities tax revenues by about four and a half times since the end of fiscal year 2001, from about $194,000 to $855,000 annually. Real estate tax revenue alone has increased seven times, from $107,000 to $745,000 annually.
While the town’s population has remained relatively stable throughout the years, its geographical size and appeal to outside visitors has increased, both attributable to the Salamander Resort and Spa.
Although initially residents strongly opposed the resort coming to Middleburg, the Town Council backed the project, confident that town would reap economic benefits without surrendering its small-town character.
Before 2007, only 89 acres of the resort’s property was included in the town limits. That changed when the town rezoned the property to bring the entire 342-acre property into town.
Once that happened, Middleburg leaders agreed to provide utility service to the resort in exchange for the construction of a wastewater plant, a water treatment plant and two wells, which provide the resort with 130,000 gallons of water each day.
Since opening in 2013, the 168-room resort has also been a major contributor to the town’s general fund revenues.
In the resort’s first year of business, the town’s occupancy tax revenue increased by six times, from $41,000 in 2013 to $248,000 the next year.
Mayor Bridge Littleton said Salamander has helped to transform the town’s economy into one that’s tourism-driven, rather than just agricultural. He also said that the resort has been a success not just in terms of bringing business to the town, but also when it comes to community involvement.
“What they give back to the community … is phenomenal,” he said. “I think it’s overall been a very, very positive impact for the town.”
The town now has 291 registered businesses. Included in that list is Mt. Defiance Cidery & Distillery, the county’s only rum distillery and one of 56 distilleries in Virginia. Those businesses provide the town with $1.5 million in commercial tax revenue—about half of the General Fund revenues. That’s nearly four times what the town pulled in two decades ago, when it generated only $382,000 from commercial taxes.
Of the businesses furnishing Middleburg with that revenue, the town’s 14 restaurants—several of which have opened in recent years—deliver $900,000 via meals tax alone. Those restaurants include Salamander’s wine bar and restaurant, three Asian-themed restaurants and the newly-opened La Hacienda Tex-Mex & Grill. Compare that to 2001, when the town pulled in less than a fifth of that.
Aside from growing its size, appeal and coffers, Middleburg also recently experienced a shift in the median age and average household income of its residents. In 2009, the median age of a Middleburg resident was 55. By 2011, it was at 50. In 2017, it was down to 48.
Littleton said that while many children of longtime town residents who are now in their late 20s and early 30s are returning home to Middleburg to start families, they can’t afford to live there with the area’s average home price of $451,000, according to the county’s Commissioner of the Revenue Office’s 2018 Assessment Summary. Meanwhile, the median household income has dipped from $56,000 in 2015 to $43,000 in 2016, and has hovered around there ever since.
“We have to figure out how to have affordable housing options to address that,” he said. “That’s the challenge.”
Moving into 2019, the town is working to update its Comprehensive Plan and is considering which kinds of development it should welcome in the next 20 years. More specifically, the Planning Commission is looking at plans to potentially redevelop property along East Federal Street.
Old Ox Brewery is working to open a huge tasting room and outdoor beer garden on the Health Center property on South Madison Street by spring.
The largest area of undeveloped land in town is the 68 acres on the Salamander Resort property that’s zoned for residential development and a mixed-use commercial village. According to Town Planner Will Moore, Salamander is not pursuing development of the commercial village, but has submitted plans for the construction of 49 single-family homes. “That still is an active application,” he said.
Town Manager Danny Davis said that the town in 2019 would be concluding a few projects, including the town branding initiative and website rebuild, and looking toward a few long-term projects, like a move into a new town office and ensuring that the budget is sustainable for the future.
“I want to see our businesses thrive, our residents feel safe and happy, and our visitors love their experience so much that they can’t wait to come back,” he said.
Littleton said that the Town Council is focused on three initiatives—to attract new and unique businesses, to help the existing ones thrive and to improve town events to attract more visitors. To do that, Middleburg recently created a Cultural Arts and Events Committee that will meet for the first time in January.
“[Growth is] never a one-year thing,” Littleton said. “It is always a slow-moving thing … like steering an aircraft carrier.”